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COVID-19 vaccines do not cause turbo cancer


In the age of information, misinformation can spread quickly, especially when it comes to health and safety. One such claim circulating on the internet is that COVID-19 vaccines cause “turbo cancer”. This article aims to debunk this claim using scientific evidence and reliable sources.

COVID-19 vaccines have been developed to protect against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. They work by teaching our immune systems how to recognize and fight the virus. The vaccines have undergone rigorous testing in clinical trials involving tens of thousands of people to ensure they meet safety standards and are effective.

Despite the COVID-19 vaccines preventing hundreds of thousands of deaths in the USA alone, anti-vaccine activists have invented a huge number of false claims about COVID-19 vaccines, including “turbo cancer.” I have previously debunked false claims from the Florida surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, who thinks that DNA in the COVID-19 mRNA-based vaccines can lead to cancer.

crop unrecognizable male doctor with stethoscope
Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

What is “turbo cancer”?

Turbo cancer is an anti-vaccine myth that the COVID-19 vaccines, specifically mRNA-based versions, cause a much higher risk of cancer. David Gorski, MD, Ph.D. stated that turbo cancer is the result of “the usual misinformation techniques used by antivaxxers: Citing anecdotes, wild speculation about biological mechanisms without a firm basis in biology, and conflating correlation with causation.”

There is simply no evidence that supports the claim that COVID-19 vaccines have increased the risk or incidence of any cancer. But the anti-vaccine world likes to claim that either the mRNA or DNA contamination in the COVID-19 mRNA-based vaccines changes your DNA leading to cancer.

Recently, the aforementioned Ladapo and other anti-vaccine activists have relied upon a preprint paper (a “preprint” means it hasn’t been peer-reviewed nor published anywhere by a respected biomedical journal) that tries to claim there is DNA in mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines and this has lead to an increased risk of cancer.

We will get back to this paper in the next section. Let me quote the leading experts on cancer in the world, the National Cancer Institute, who wrote — “[t]here is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines cause cancer, lead to recurrence, or lead to disease progression. Furthermore, COVID-19 vaccines do not change your DNA.”

Debunking the “turbo cancer” paper

On 3 January 2024, the surgeon general of Florida, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, put out a warning that physicians and healthcare providers in this state, Florida, should not use mRNA vaccines. The reason is that supposedly they were contaminated with DNA fragments, specifically from the SV40 virus, that would then insert themselves into human DNA and could cause cancers like leukemia or lymphoma, or autoimmune diseases and other problems. Again, he based this claim on the preprint paper that had been posted online on 18 October 2023.

There are a lot of problems with this paper. But let’s go about this scientifically. First, is there DNA in mRNA-based COVID-19 vaccines? Probably, but the amounts are measured in nanograms (one-billionth of a gram). However, the FDA rebuked this claim that there were SV40 DNA fragments in the vaccines.

Now I know what you might be thinking — DNA in vaccines has got to be a bad thing. And you don’t want all of this strange DNA floating in my blood. However, from a scientific perspective, this is much ado about nothing, because there are three critical issues:

  1. The DNA would have to enter the cytoplasm of your cells. Now, our cell’s cytoplasm does not like or appreciate foreign DNA, so it has a variety of mechanisms, including innate immune systems and enzymes, to destroy foreign DNA. In other words, that foreign DNA would be destroyed before it gets to the cell or once it tries to enter the cells.
  2. Even if the foreign DNA got into the cell, which it can’t, it would have to cross into the cell’s nucleus, where all of your genes are located, before it could affect those genes. However, for DNA to cross into the nucleus, they have to have an “access signal,” which the foreign DNA fragments absolutely do not have.
  3. Even if that foreign DNA could enter the nucleus, which it can’t, it would have to insert itself into your DNA. To do this, the foreign DNA would require enzymes, such as integrases, which they don’t have.

Let’s put this bluntly — if there is DNA in the COVID-19 vaccines, they have a zero chance of causing any harm to your DNA genes. This isn’t an opinion or belief, this is based on the biochemistry and biology of cells and genes. Foreign DNA cannot get into cells and is generally destroyed with the individual simple nucleotides being reused by the body.

Remember, every food you eat contains DNA — yes, when you munch on that ear of corn or hamburger or anything, you are consuming foreign DNA in quantities much higher than found (possibly) in COVID-19 vaccines. The intestinal tract absorbs DNA fragments (because the body can use parts of those DNA fragments) yet you never turn into an ear of corn or a cow or anything.

Surprisingly, Lapado does not remember basic biochemistry and cell biology from his premed courses before going to medical school. I studied biochemistry, cancer biology, and cell biology decades ago, and I know this.

Of course, the claim that “SV40 viral DNA causes cancer” is an anti-vaccine trope that goes back to the 1960s. The Cliff Notes version of this trope is that SV40 had accidentally contaminated the oral polio vaccine and that it caused higher rates of cancer in people who received the vaccine. The contamination did happen because of the manufacturing method used to produce the vaccine (which is no longer used), but there was no increased risk of cancer. SV40 is just one of those myths generated by anti-vaccine activists to cause fear, uncertainty, and doubt.

People do get frightened by hearing about DNA thinking that their cells are pathetic weaklings who have failed to evolve a system to deal with foreign DNA. We evolved this system, billions of years ago, to prevent the genes from being contaminated with DNA.

The loquacious Orac wrote about this article in late 2023 and concluded:

In the end, this is yet another awful study that, even if taken at face value and assuming the methodology was valid and analyzed correctly, doesn’t show what the authors claim that it shows. Add the methodological questions and the lack of some key controls, and it’s not only not good evidence for harm from residual plasmid DNA left in COVID-19 vaccines, but it’s downright uninterpretable.

Let’s not forget that there is simply no evidence whatsoever that there is an increase in cancer rates as a result of COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, there has been a decrease in cancer risk in recent years.

Summary

The claim that COVID-19 vaccines cause “turbo cancer” is not supported by scientific evidence and appears to be a myth propagated by anti-vaccine proponents. COVID-19 vaccines are safe, effective, and crucial in mitigating the risks posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for vulnerable populations such as those with cancer.

Citations

  • Siegel RL, Miller KD, Wagle NS, Jemal A. Cancer statistics, 2023. CA Cancer J Clin. 2023 Jan;73(1):17-48. doi: 10.3322/caac.21763. PMID: 36633525.
Michael Simpson
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